CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It is two weeks into NASCAR’s playoffs and there has been little to no talk about the actual racing.
Instead, NASCAR has been shrouded in one absurd drama after another:
uEncumbered finishes — you know, results that don’t count toward the playoffs because the car was illegal.
uAmbulances that have gotten lost taking drivers to the care center.
uA duct-tape scandal over the car of championship contender Chase Elliott. “Tapegate” may or may not have been uncovered by Reddit users.
uThe penalty that required Joey Logano to sit idly inside his car on pit road during an entire practice session at New Hampshire.
uA Twitter spat between several title contenders because a Ford driver claimed the Toyota camp has a sizeable advantage. (Maybe: Toyota drivers have won the first two playoff races.)
uDale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from full-time racing in eight weeks. He’s the face of the sport.
uDanica Patrick, the only woman at NASCAR’s top level, has no ride for next year.
And now NASCAR is part of the tense debate between President Donald Trump and the NFL over players who protest during the national anthem before kickoff. On the same day that more than 200 NFL players took a knee or otherwise protested, every NASCAR driver and team member stood during the anthem before Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motorspeedway.
Trump was appreciative of that response in a Monday morning tweet : “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!”
NASCAR later issued a statement that noted respect for the national anthem “has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events.”
“Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion,” the statement said.
Maybe so, but NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Richard Childress, both currently team owners, said they would fire employees who protested during the anthem.
It is their right as employers to hold their independent contractors to any set of standards they choose, but this is where things can get sticky with NASCAR, which is so intricately tied to sponsorship. Everyone in NASCAR is beholden to sponsorship contracts and all the clauses that come with the funding that keeps teams afloat. Subway earlier this month pulled its sponsorship from driver Daniel Suarez after he handed out Dunkin’ Donuts to fans in a pre-recorded television segment.
Alienating any part of the fan base — and potential customers for those sponsors — simply isn’t good business, and it’s why you won’t see drivers or team members participate in any anthem protests.
While it might be nice to see NASCAR’s stars take a stance — so far, only Earnhardt has publicly supported peaceful protests and he’s retiring — pulling NASCAR into the anthem debate isn’t really fair.
Sure, NASCAR Chairman Brian France two years ago said he didn’t want Confederate flags at racetracks anymore, angering some fans who cling to the sport’s roots in the Deep South. But the series takes such pride in its support for the military and for veterans that any sort of action during the anthem would be an affront to NASCAR’s staunchest fans.
It can also be argued that a big chunk of NASCAR’s fan base don’t mind support from Trump, not at all. And it’s hardly NASCAR’s biggest issue. Two drivers — both in Toyotas — combined to lead all but one of the 300 laps at New Hampshire on Sunday, a snoozefest of a playoff race. Television ratings aren’t improving, sponsorship dollars are dropping and some of the biggest names in the sport are on their way out.
NASCAR needs to keep its attention on racing, where things are already bumpy enough without a whiff of politics.
More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/